From the Stage to the Silver Screen

Robert Eisele, who wrote Golden Globe best picture nominee “The Great Debaters,” set to speak in Kalispell

By Justin Franz
Robert Eisele. Courtesy Photo

Robert Eisele can still pinpoint the precise moment he knew he wanted to leave theater and begin writing for the screen. The writer was sitting in a frigid room in a Chicago theater – so cold, in fact, he could see his own breath – during one of the worst winters the city had seen in 20 years.

Traveling across the country, being away from family and working in less-than-stellar conditions all came with the life of a playwright. Eisele knew this. He also knew there could be brighter pastures ahead if he took a new path forward – so that’s exactly what he did.

Little did he know that he was about to embark on an award-winning career, including a chance to write a Golden Globe best picture nominee starring and directed by Denzel Washington.

Eisele will be in Kalispell on March 28 for a free screening of his film, “The Great Debaters,” at the Museum at Central School. Following the showing, Eisele will lead a discussion about the film and his work.

Born and raised in California, Eisele studied at the University of California-Los Angeles, earning bachelor’s degree in film and master’s degree in theater playwriting. After college, he earned a playwright fellowship at the Tony Award-winning American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. After the fellowship, Eisele continued to write plays while also teaching at Rio Hondo College, where he met Gil Jordan, who would later become the executive director of the Museum at Central School. The two became lifelong friends.

In the 1980s Eisele decided to leave theater and dive into writing screenplays. Although there are similarities between the two crafts, Eisele noted that writing for the stage and writing for the screen can be two very different experiences.

“In theater, the playwright is in charge, they can’t rewrite a word without your permission, but in TV and film they can change whatever they want,” he said. “I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to make a living doing it.”

Eisele began writing television shows, including episodes of Cagney and Lacey. He went on to be a story editor for Michael Mann’s “Crime Story” and then a producer for “The Equalizer.” He then started writing movies, including “Last Light,” “3: The Dale Earnhardt Story” and “Lily in Winter.”

In the late 1990s, one of Eisele’s friends discovered the story of an all-black college debate team in the 1930s that competed against one of the best teams in the nation. Eisele and Jeffrey Porro started interviewing members of the debate team and crafting the story. Eisele finished writing the screenplay in the early 2000s and quickly sold it, but it lingered on the studio shelf for a few years.

“It was just a fantastic story,” he said. “Everyone loved it, but you don’t see a lot of movies about black college debate teams in the 1930s, so it sat for a few years until Denzel Washington picked it up.”

“The Great Debaters” went on to be nominated for numerous honors and won the Writers Guild of America Paul Selvin Award. Eisele said the story of an all-black debate team overcoming adversity is the type he loves to share because it inspires and addresses important social issues.

“It’s just rewarding to have something made that has meaning and value,” he said.